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Are you part of the solution or part of the problem?

Published February 15. 2013 4:00AM

I am pretty sure that 9 months after this recent blizzard there is likely to be a population explosion in the Northeast-a population explosion that does not, incidentally, include my physician and nurse colleagues.

We in the medical profession choose to exempt ourselves from the romance of being locked inside the house with our spouses, a warm fire ablaze while the snow dances sexy tangos outside the window because of our pathological need to solve problems-real and imagined.

I called my non-medical friends, with doors barricaded shut by several feet of snow, during the storm to see how they were doing. One thought it was "romantic." Some answered "hello" in that slightly breathless voice, amid the telltale rustle of sheets-or they didn't answer at all. (I never claimed that my timing was good.)

By contrast, my medical colleagues had booked rooms in the hotels closest to the hospital so that they could make it safely into work, or even slept in the hospital, fashioning a bed out of a couple of waiting room chairs, a Barcalounger, a broom closet.

Doctors have this strange need to find a solution to a problem; they also need problems to solve. A blizzard becomes a problem to figure out, not a means of staying at home and stoking romantic fires after snowshoeing with our spouse.

What we can't abide are problems that linger unfixed (like being stuck at home because the roads are impassible). We go to great lengths to avoid them (like sleeping in a broom closet with a Lysol bottle for a pillow).

When problems just can't be solved, doctors either invent a solution that doesn't work, or deny that the problem's really a problem.

Take death, for example. It's a problem. When I first started in medicine, I thought it was The Problem. Medicine has invented solutions like hospitals, surgery, antibiotics, defibrillators, chemotherapy, blood transfusions, intensive care units, angioplasties and craniotomies-but death remains unsolvable. Since we can't tolerate problems with no solutions, we decided that death isn't the real problem, but that the problem lies in a poor quality of life. So we invent solutions, like hospice, which is, perhaps, the single most successful solution in the history of medicine.

I must admit, though, I still have a problem with death. It scares me. I hear about it all the time from patients who have died and come back.

One guy claimed to have seen a bright light. A lot of others came back to life and when I asked if they saw the light, they said they didn't see anything.

I tell them not to worry. By my theorizing, it's best not to put too much stock in what they did or didn't see because, after all, they're not dead. The fact remains, however, that I'm not to eager to test my theory; like I said, the problem of death still scares me.

There are, of course, other doctors-the really smart ones-who never thought that death was the problem, and instead take care of more solvable problems, like blindness, incontinence, arthritis and acne. They don't worry themselves with unsolvable problems, and they aren't the ones who sleep in the hospital broom closet during a blizzard.

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